One way to find out about something you’re blind to is to run into it and get smacked in the face.
That’s how it’s often happened to me anyway. Like one night when I came face to face with my own unconscious bias within my marriage. I liked to cook over the weekend, so I wouldn’t have to during the week—mainly because I didn’t want to head to the kitchen after a hard day’s work.
Until one night, when, as I considered ordering Chinese on my way back from work, it hit me.
Women did this all the time and never made a big deal about it. So why was I making such a big deal about it?
And once again, as I had already so many times, I was forced to come to terms with my unconscious biases about male and female roles and norms. I was forced to face the humbling realisation that my work of learning to respect women as equals was far from over.
The first time I came to terms with my privilege as a male was as a whole adult.
I was in psychiatry residency at the time, and this young lady had come from the US to get some experience of psychiatry practice in Nigeria, partly because her parents were Nigerian, and it gave her an excuse to come home, but also because she really did want to learn about it.
At the time I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and learning for the first time about the complexities of black female hair. I grew up without sisters, and my mum’s approach was low-cut Jheri curls which required minimal salon visits. (As I would later come to learn, it was how she coped with the time constraints of raising four boys—when we were all grown and started leaving home, she started braiding her hair and using extensions!)
As it turned out, said young lady rocked natural hair (this was, mind you, when the natural hair movement was not—at least in Nigeria—yet the big thing it would later become).
So picture me, reading this book that’s my introduction to exploring race and blackness, feminism and hair, and right at the same time, meeting this new person with progressive politics, who had lived all her life in America, wore natural hair, and was pretty to boot. She basically embodied everything I was reading about. It was the perfect recipe for long hours of after-work conversations about blackness and being Nigerian, about feminism and patriarchy, mental health and faith. And hair.
And so I, who had always enjoyed discovering new worlds in my favourite fantasy stories, came to terms for the first time with the reality of how the world was very different for people I had assumed lived like me. I even came to appreciate that being the majority ethnic group in the part of Nigeria I grew up in was a privilege of its own and to empathise a bit more with the work experience of the two non-Yoruba doctors in our department at the time.
It was one of those things that, once you see, you can’t un-see.
But you can forget.
Because of course it’s easy to forget something you only have to see, not personally live. And forget I did, over and over again. So that night I admitted to myself that my reluctance to cook after work was inconsiderate.
And with that admission came shame—shame, not just about that specific incident, or even all the times I had complained, but also about how the inevitable question: how much else was I failing to see?
During those hour-long conversations years ago, a question had arisen:
What do you do with privilege and power when you finally realise you have it?
Our conclusion? Other than systemic change, the only useful personal response was to use it.
On behalf of those without it, that is—not for yourself.
But that’s not how we typically respond, is it? Instead we feel guilt, or shame—like I felt that night. And that’s alright—guilt and shame are only normal emotional reactions to recognising that we are somehow in the wrong. Guilt is our acknowledgement that we contribute to the problem, however unwillingly, shame is our recognition that our blindness so far says something about us.
And both feelings are useful, in the short term. They are like turning on a light in your lovely kitchen and realising you’ve got mice running around. But simply realising is only a first step. The next step is to give thought to how you root out the rats—and if possible, eliminate whatever entry points they use.
But dwelling too long on guilt and shame, and not actually acting, isn’t helpful: it easily becomes about how we’re feeling (and perhaps wanting to feel better), and not about the actual problem for the other person. Similarly, giving up on one’s privilege out of guilt might be noble, but it’s not necessarily helpful to those who still don’t have it.
What you certainly don’t want to do, though, is simply turn the light back off, go to sleep and make sure you never turn it on again so you don’t have to see them. But with privilege there’s a temptation to do just that: to refuse to acknowledge it, to chalk up your “moderate” success to “hard work.” To switch metaphors, privilege can be like air: invisible, with you simply existing within it and taking it for granted, unable to imagine why some say they can’t breathe.
Nor is all of this just a one time thing. It’s the work of a lifetime, as I’ve come to discover—there’s been many more days since that night when I’ve had to face another unconscious bias. And, precisely because it’s unconscious, there’s no way for me to be aware of it, until I face discomfort. Then I must decide again if I will work through the discomfort or just hide from it. One thing that’s helped me is coming back and back again to the fact that at the heart of the Christian faith I practice, is the idea of denying the self in this way being the path to actually entering into a richer sense of self.
Speaking of which…
Faith and privilege
At the time when we talked about using privilege as a means, I had two other realisations. The first was that the idea of using privilege as a means of serving others was right in line was a core value in the Christain faith I already practised at the time. The second was that it wasn’t an idea that got a lot of airtime in the mainstream versions of it I was aware of.
It was my first awareness of a historical dissonance within Christianity:
At the core of Christian faith is the idea that the highest purpose of power is to serve—but that goes so against the grain of human nature that it has often been ignored.
A tension has always existed between the ideals of Christianity and the practice of Christians, with the faith often being the very judge of its practitioners. A most visible form of this tension is the grasping for political power within American evangelicalism over the last several decades. But it exists in several other forms across the world and all through Christian history—Christianity’s role in the Crusades, the Inquisition, colonisation and slavery being some of the more well known examples. One might say Christianity has been at its worst when it’s been greediest for—or actually allied with—political power.
And there are few more terrible than the self-righteous person who also has power. As CS Lewis said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst”. Worse, still, when such people claim to follow someone who eschewed political power and was killed by—you guessed it—the politically powerful of his time.
It’s particularly sad to me because I truly believe there’s is a potentially explosive force to this perspective on power and privilege: that it is a gift, but never primarily for the one who has it, but for those who don’t, just like electricity is never for the benefit of the copper wire through which it passes.
My thanks to Adam Tank, Charlie Bleecker and Jen Vermet for their feedback on the early drafts of this essay, and to Jaanus Jagomägi (via Unsplash) for the featured photo.